South of the Border…

I’ve never been to Mexico, but a long time ago I was drawn to some pottery figures that were made there.  I think it was around 1969 – 1970.

I liked visiting my sister’s friend’s apartment.  Jeanne’s place was decorated in the latest fashions with things like I had never seen.  Her furniture was warm wood tones, all smooth with rounded edges and solid, bold upholstery colors.  It was very different from any furniture I’d seen.  I didn’t know it then, but I believe it was the clean refreshing lines of Scandinavian furniture that were so attractive to me.  It was a stark contrast to the furniture that we had a home. My parents got new furniture in the mid 1960’s.  I believe the living room was Italian provincial and the dining room was French provincial.

At any rate, it was very “provincial”.

Our living room furniture was upholstered in sage green and gold brocade fabric – it was more subtle than it sounds.  As was the rage at that time, at least on our street – the sofa and chairs were fitted with custom-made clear plastic slip covers (to keep it nice).  This was wonderful in the summer when you wore shorts and had no air conditioning.

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Here is a nice view of the slipcovers at their finest… along with my parents and their first grandchild and happy me.

Anyway, back to Jeanne’s place…deep blues and greens dominated the color scheme including a stained glass light where the two colors alternated around the shade.  This hung over the glass-topped wrought iron table that was covered with a blue woven tablecloth.  There was also wonderful abstract painting done by her husband that featured a Siamese cat and picked up the same colors in a geometric, shadowy way. There were interesting pottery vases too.  I remember a design where the vase was full on the bottom and tapering to a very tiny opening – sometimes just enough for one long-stemmed flower to rise high above the base.  I’ve since learned they are called seed vessels, and the shape was designed with the tiny opening that allowed seeds to be dropped in, but no insects or rodents could get at them.  When it was time to plant the seeds, the pot would be broken to release the seeds.  I remember this being a popular vase shape in the late 1960’s early 1970s.  Dried flowers dyed with bright colors filled the pottery and the place was bright and airy.

Among all of this exotic decor, was a collection of owl figures.  There were different sizes and styles and it was a fascinating group.  I was very young and had probably just started amassing my collection of bone china animals.  I don’t even think I knew you could have a “collection”.  I studied the owls whenever I was at Jeanne’s place and cultivated an appreciation for the selection and display of this grouping.  Among those I remember were one or two made of colored alabaster that were basically round spheres with accents around the eyes that let you know they were owls.

il_570xN.1118372095_j3yaPhoto courtesy of ClaudiasTreasureHut on

However, the ones I remember most were very smooth glazed pottery owls in earthy tones.  They were hand painted with highly stylized leaves and flowers and they had odd abstract faces that I found intriguing.  Maybe a year later, at a school bazaar I found a bird painted in the same manner.  It was like a dove or pigeon, very thick and heavy, with the same flowery, hand painted designs and large dark eyes.  It had a satin finish and the colors were shades of rosy browns and grays.  “Mexico” was painted on the bottom…I scooped up the exotic treasure.  I had this bird for years.  I never found any others and by the time I got to high school, many of my items were packed away.  This bird ended up being sold at a flea market when I was in college.  I always regretted letting it go and seem to have over corrected that problem.

Fast forward to the late 1990’s….I was in a local antique shop that is located in a mid-1800’s house.  On the third floor was what you could call the bargain section.  There I found a lovely pair of birds!  They were only $5 for the pair.  The coloring on one of them is much like the one I had years ago and it is a bird with a short tail.  The other is similar in form to my original – like a dove, but more of a terra-cotta color.  I was very pleased to find them since I never really forgot about the one I found so many years ago.


Small fish was another flea market find.  DSC_0213.JPG

Now there were three…dangerously teetering on the start of a collection.

It seems once I start encountering a certain number of things that I’m not familiar with, it’s time to research.  All that I knew about these whimsical pottery animals is that they were made in Mexico.  With the benefit of the internet, it didn’t take long to find out that they are referred to as Tonala pottery. Without going into too much history, this was a type of pottery that originated in the city of Tonala in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Tonala is located within the state of Jalisco where much of the pottery is produced.  There are urns, plates and many animal forms, which I love.

Large squirrel and a chipmunk…notice the nut the squirrel is holding.


The pottery is still being produced today and despite how few I encountered early on, they are readily available.

Above is kind of graceful bird…lots of bird forms it seems.

The pieces I seem to be most drawn to are the vintage pieces with a finish referred to as burnished.  These are the ones with the muted earthy tones.

Below is the largest piece I own…it’s a duck or goose.  My Mom gave me the gourds a few years ago.  Originally they were an odd pinkish gray tone that matched the background color of the bird – I used them for eggs.  Now they’ve dried to a different tone, but she still keeps them.  The penny is for scale.


A few more birds…

Fish, reptiles, amphibians etc…

Big fish and little fish…I love the face on the large fish!

Mr. Snake…

Turtle with a nodding head…

Frogs and toads…

A large snail…



Some of the painting details…I love this stuff!


There are also pieces that are highly glazed or have brighter colors and I have some of those as well.

Green glazes on a large road runner and a bunny…


This is a large highly decorative frog…a gift from Marge.

This is terra-cotta frog from Mexico in bright colors.

I’ve seen a good bit of this type…all black with etched designs.

My love of the designs and glazes in Mexican pottery is not limited to figures…

I went all out with a high power internet search and was amazed at all of the different types of animals available.  This fueled one of my fast paced collections which seem to happen frequently with the internet.  I generally stop once the items have filled the space that I have designated for them.  I love the unique quality of each piece – all painted by hand.

This is my favorite kind of collection when the pieces are very difference and yet still all related.  They look great together and I would get more if I could fit them.

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